When people discuss a photographer’s talent, they often speak about a photographer’s eye – that unique vision that individual photographers brings to their work.
But looking over four decades of Prashant Panjiar’s images in his new book, That Which Is Unseen: Back Stories From My Years in Photojournalism, it’s clear that another part of his face has also been at work: his nose.
Panjiar, who spent significant portions of his career with leading newsweeklies India Today and Outlook, has an uncanny ability to sniff out momentous events and to be in the right place at the critical moment: in the Chambal Valley with its legendary dacoits in the 1980s; in Punjab during the Khalistan movement, just before Blue Star; in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demlished.
Edited excerpts from a conversation at his launch event in Mumbai.
You were in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, when the Babri Masid was demolished. You got the only pictures of the domes collapsing. How did you manage that?
India Today had three teams tailing Bharatiya Janata Party leaders as they made their way to Ayodhya for a symbolic kar seva. My brief had been to follow LK Advani. Tens of thousands of karsevaks had gathered in front of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi. That’s where all the camera crews and photographers were too. But Advani and the other leaders were some distance away on the terrace of a structure called the Ram Katha Kunj, from where they were making speeches.
From here, I only had a view of the domes.
As the karsevaks began to break the barricades at the site, all the journalists there were systematically attacked. All their cameras were smashed. Many colleagues were badly injured. Some were locked away by karsevaks so there would be no evidence of the demolition. But on top of the Ram Katha Kunj, people thought I was with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad so I could photograph right throughout. That how I was able to take photographs of when the domes actually fell.
Twenty years after this, the story was still with me because I was called in to depose in the Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the demolition. I went to Lucknow to depose. But it was such a farce. All the lawyers were in cahoots with each other. I don’t know whether my testimony would have made any difference.
But it’s a reminder that what journalists do is pretty important, isn’t it? After all, we pride ourselves on producing the first draft of history…
All I knew at that point of time was that I had to keep my head down, don’t show my emotions, and just keep on photographing – because if I had shown any kind of emotion, I would have been thrown out of there.
I kept quiet and I listened. That’s an advantage we photographers have over reporters: we can eavesdrop. Many politicians and others don’t think we’re listening. They think we’re deaf. But we are actually privy to a lot of inside information.
During your stint with Outlook, where you joined as associate editor in 1995, some of the pictures that readers best remember you for are outside of the world of politics.
At Outlook, I could choose to do a lot of the stories that I was interested in. For instance, we had started doing profiles of writers. Many of them were childhood heroes, so it was great to be able to see and photograph them. I shot VS Naipaul when I was in London to research for the 50th year of Independence issue.
And then there was that serendipitous picture of Allan Sealy. Did you prompt that child to pose that way?
No, no, I actually prompted Alan Sealey. In a portrait, you’re always negotiating with the subject. He had only a little time. I had to photography where he was staying, so decided to take him to the park behind his apartment. He put on that pose himself. And the kid just walked into the frame. I think half of our work is luck.
Your book is, in a way, a chronicle of liberalising India. Though its pages, we see a country getting more prosperous, more flamboyant. It’s a country that’s getting more jingoistic in some way, and displaying more religiosity. But you also depict the many losers. What, to you, have been challenges of photographing this story?
After 1995, we’d started doing stories about how cell phones were spreading everywhere, about shopping malls and the construction boom. When I left Outlook in 2001, the sexy story of the Great Indian Middle class and how they were going to buy everything was everywhere. I did stories on India’s super-rich, for example.
There was an amazing amount of construction happening across in India. I did a book called Pan India Shared Habitat, which I’d been photographing with panoramic camera, featuring some of these new landscapes of demolition and construction. Many artists were thinking about these themes too at the time.
But after some time, it seemed like an overload. It seemed like anytime I did an assignment for a foreign publication, the photo editor in New York or in Hong Kong would ask me to do one picture of a shopping mall, even though it wasn’t necessary for the story. I just got fed up.
A photograph you shot in Bhuj in the aftermath of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake gets to the heart of the moral dilemmas that we face as journalists. What were your thoughts about it?
The Gujarat earthquake happened on a Friday and the magazine had already gone to press. We all conveyed for an emergency meeting in the Outlook office. We said that we needed to cover this. Vinod Mehta, the editor, was hesitant because he didn’t know if we’d get the story in time for our deadline. We had a major shouting match. I realised that there’s no way we’d win unless we had a plan that worked.
So we had two colleagues from the Bombay office fly in that evening and two of us went in from Delhi. We got there by dawn. I carried a portable scanner. We spent the day in Bhuj, dashed to Rajkot 250 km away where there was a lab that could process the film and then file the pictures on the dial-up internet lines that we had at the time.
When it was very close to our deadline to leave Bhuj, I went into this building that had collapsed. This boy, Prakash, was stuck inside. It was a Cabinet of Dr Caligari kind of scene. The roof had collapsed, the floor was uneven – and the boy was trapped.
People had tried to prise him out but it seemed impossible because a slab had collapsed on his chest. So I made the picture and I got out. We were told that the Army was coming to rescue him. We filed the picture – it was used as the lead picture in the story.
When we came back later, we found that Prakash had been rescued but he died shortly afterwards because his body had been crushed for so long.
Later, someone asked the question that is put to so many photographers: should you be helping somebody or should be taking a picture? I thought about that a lot.
Often that’s not the choice that we have to make because you’re not in a position to help anybody – and other people better equipped to it. But the real question is whether to photograph or not to photograph. It raises the question of whether the subject is in a position to consent to their picture being taken.
Could I have asked him, can I take your picture? That would have been too effing stupid. But should I actually have taken the photograph? To shoot or not to shoot: that’s the moral dilemma, actually.
As a photojournalist, how does personal ideology influence your work?
Early on in my career, I had a discussion with a senior editor at India Today and asked if as journalists we were supposed to be unbiased and objective. He said, no, whether you’d like it or not, the truth is biased. That kind of stuck with me.
I came from Left-wing politics and that has always informed my work as a journalist. Because of my politics, I became aware of how the visual image can enhance or demean someone. It’s easy to present India in contrast, to juxtapose the rich against the poor, the powerful against the weak and to use stereotypes. That was something many of us did unconsciously when we started street photography.
After seeing Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar when I was in university, I was interested in the idea of people who had gone into oblivion. That’s why I decided to shoot the former maharajas of India. I later did an exhibition called King, Commoner, Citizen. The idea of that show was that when you photograph someone in India, you have to be aware of your own position of privilege and that you have to accord the same respect to both the powerful and those who don’t have power.
I’ve benefited from what I believed in. I think it’s important for us photographers to have a worldview. You might call it an ethic, a politics, whatever you like – to have a view of what you believe in is important.
Writers and reporters bring their opinion into their work. Why shouldn’t we as photojournalists not have that right too?
That Which is Unseen, images and texts by Prashant Panjiar (Navajivan Trust).